Roger Bannister, MD: 4 Minutes & Beyond

Physician's Money DigestDecember15 2004
Volume 11
Issue 23

The Four-Minute Mile: Fiftieth

Anniversary Edition

My legs seemed to feel no resistance at all, asif propelled by some unknown force,"Roger Bannister, MD, recalls of his record-breakingrun on May 6, 1954. His autobiography,(The Lyons Press; 2004),recaptures that 3:59.4-minute mile at IffleyRoad, Oxford, in which he became the firstperson to ever break the 4-minute barrier.

Sports Illustrated

It wasn't an easy task. For 9 years, therecord had stood at 4:01.3, and experts hadregarded an under-4-minute mile as aninsurmountable human limitation. Afterattending to some duties at St. Mary'sHospital in London, Dr. Bannister arrived early thatmorning to a gusty campus in Oxford and plunged forthe record. "I felt at that moment that it was my chanceto do one thing supremely well,"he writes. When histime was announced, newspapers and radio broadcastersacross the globe exploded. rankedDr. Bannister's accomplishment alongside the scaling ofMt. Everest as the most significant athletic achievementof the 20th century.

Pursuing Medicine

In the true Greek spirit, the 75-year-old physician hascontinued to push past other barriers, for which he hasbeen acknowledged. He was inducted into the Student-Athlete Hall of Fame and the Academy of Achievement,was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and has receivednumerous honorary degrees and awards.

Before breaking the mile record, he obtained ascholarship to Oxford University and studied medicineat St. Mary's Hospital Medical School. Ever the scientist,Dr. Bannister used his knowledge of anatomy tohelp develop his training methods. He kepthis workouts consistent and brief. By studyinghow the body reacts to exhaustion andwhat unnecessary movements waste oxygen,he modified his technique, which steadilyimproved his time.


A few months after his record mile, heretired from competitive running and dedicatedhis time to medicine, combiningresearch with clinical practice as a neurologist.In an interview with , Dr. Bannisterexplains, "I've always accepted challenges, and I felt thatto study the brain would be a lifelong challenge, but Imight in some way be able to contribute to some littlebricks in the wall that was being built to some kind offull understanding of the brain."

His running, although an important pursuit, alwayscame second to medicine. In a recent press interview, hereflects, "If you ask me in my life whether the neurologyis more important or the sport is more important,the neurology tips the scale heavily in its favor becauseit is a never-ending quest."

Following an Ideal

Autonomic Failure

Fair Play

Dr. Bannister is certainly made of the noble stuff ofcharacters pursuing quests. He wrote several books onhis area of study that have become staple academictexts, such as (Oxford UniversityPress; 2003). In addition to his brief autobiography, hewrote (Heinemann Educational Books; 1979)to discuss sports ethics among student-athletes. Afteryears of practice, he returned full-fledged to academia,researching and serving as master of Pembroke College,Oxford, from 1985 to 1993.

Dr. Bannister made it a point to give back to his community.He funded a track in his hometown, and in 1971became chairman of the first Sports Council of GreatBritain. During his years in office, the council developedthe Sport for All program and the first effective drug testfor anabolic steroids, which is still used today.

Quiet Reflection


Dr. Bannister lives quietly these days nearby the trackwhere his great feat took place. He and his wife Moyrahave four children and 14 grandchildren, one of whom,at age 3, boasted to his peers that his grandfather had runa mile in 4 seconds. During the interview, Dr.Bannister humbly denies having great plans for thefuture, at which point Mrs. Bannister chimes in, "I'll tellyou what he does; he makes a whole wealth of peoplehappy in Oxford, and of course everywhere else."Apparently, he has started a book reading, philosophy,and walking group, and is an active board member on St.Mary's Development Trust.

"The Greek ideal was that sport should be a preparationfor life in general,"Dr. Bannister writes. "Theimportant thing is that we should perform ourselvesrather than watch others."

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